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Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, Depositions. Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship

Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2018
Ana Luiza Nobre
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Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, Depositions. Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2018

Entrées d’index

Index géographique :

Amérique, Amérique du Sud, Brésil

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle

Personnes citées :

Burle Marx Roberto (1909-1994)
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Texte intégral

1In the field of modern design, Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994) stands out as one of the great protagonists of the twentieth century. With designs such as the lakefront gardens of the Pampulha suite in Belo Horizonte, the spectacular Copacabana beachfront, the massive Flamengo Park and the roof garden of the Ministry of Education and Health headquarters, the latter three in Rio de Janeiro, he became instrumental in putting Brazil in the forefront of the international modern movement. At the same time, he contributed decisively in defining a modern landscape aesthetic.

  • 1 See, for instance, Lauro Cavalcanti and Farès el-Dahdah (eds.), Roberto Burle Marx. A permanência (...)

2Over his long career, he created brilliant orchestrations of plants (to which he frequently added other elements, such as ceramic tiles, rocks, and water) and designed over 3,000 public and private gardens and parks throughout the world, from Venezuela to Malaysia. His home-studio-laboratory at Sítio Santo Antonio da Bica, in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, became one of the most precious living archives of tropical plants in the world. Moreover, due to his significant additions to the botanical sciences, with the discovery of new species, at least 50 plants bear his name. But Burle Marx’s oeuvre goes far beyond plants and gardens. In recent years, a number of studies, books, and exhibitions have presented him as a painter, muralist, sculptor, set designer, researcher, naturalist, artist, and musician, as well as a landscape architect.1 What is less known is his pioneer role as an environmental activist in Brazil, in a historical and political context marked by strong censorship and violent repression. This has now been uncovered by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, a registered landscape architect and associate professor at the City College of New York, in her book Depositions. Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship.

3The author provides a broad historical perspective to Burle Marx’s environmental concerns and engagement in policymaking by exploring his position as a member of the Conselho Federal de Cultura (Federal Cultural Council), created by the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985) in 1967. The Council operated as an advisory board under the authority of the Ministry of Education and Culture of Brazil. It recruited intellectuals from a variety of matrices of thought, such as Gilberto Freyre, Ariano Suassuna, João Guimarães Rosa, Rodrigo Mello Franco de Andrade, Affonso Arinos de Mello Franco, and Rachel de Queiroz. It was a key cultural sector for the military government, as it gave intellectual support to the regime’s strategy of national economic development. Burle Marx’s tenure lasted seven years, from 1967 through 1974. During this period—which correspond to the regime’s most oppressive years, known as “anos de chumbo” (years of lead)—he wrote and delivered 18 pieces of environmental testimony to the plenary council, in which he addressed issues such as deforestation, lumbering exploitation, urban development, and environmental devastation.

4The book presents these pieces, or depositions, in English for the first time. It also stands alone as the first collection and republication of these texts since they appeared in three journals issued by Ministry of Education and Culture: Cultura, Boletim, and Revista Brasileira de Cultura. But Nordenson’s book goes far beyond that, as it tries to elucidate other instances and circles where Burle Marx was also active in questioning a process of modernization/development that has always cost Brazil profound environmental destruction.

5In this sense, the book’s thematic rather than chronological structure is revealing. Burle Marx’s texts are organized in five chapters: Forest Narratives; Landscapes of the Baroque Interior; Large Parks, Statues and Disfigurement; The Scientific Park; and Military Parks. In each one, a set of up to five depositions (ranging from 1967 to 1973) is presented, always introduced by a text contextualizing them. In this way, Nordenson is able to bring out a number of Burle Marx’s most important public commissions as a landscape designer—such as the gardens for many of Niemeyer’s public buildings in Brasilia, his unbuilt ornamental gardens for the Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo, or the plan of Parque del Este in Caracas.

6A good part of Nordenson’s task was, indeed, to create a broader framework around Burle Marx’s depositions. Throughout the book, she provides several elements that certainly help the foreign reader to gain insight into many aspects of Brazilian culture, including detailed historical facts carefully accumulated in the notes. Stricter editing could have avoided some repetitions, however. Also, some discussions might have been deepened—such as the ambiguous connections between Brazilian modern architects and the reigning political powers since the 1930s. Likewise, more could have been said about the alignments and conflicts within the Council itself, or between the Council and the Department of National Historic and Artistic Heritage (sphan), much oriented by Lucio Costa (whom Burle Marx challenged publicly, about the surroundings of Flamengo Park, as well as the preservation of the Palácio Monroe, the former seat of the Senate in Rio de Janeiro). At the end of the book, this reader was also wondering how Burle Marx’s words were received and perceived by the military regime—especially inside the so-called “hardliner” group, which advocated the hardening of the dictatorship and ascended with President Costa e Silva (1967-1969).

7Yet the book certainly sheds new light on Burle Marx’s intellectual position and serves as a valuable map of the local sociopolitical context, in its complexities and contradictions since colonial times. It is accompanied by a fascinating selection of iconographic material meticulously collected in various archives, including Burle Marx’s Landscape Design Studio (still active today), Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Fundação Nacional do Índio and Instituto Moreira Salles.

8It is striking to find in Burle Marx’s depictions many issues that are more than ever crucial in the ongoing political and environmental crisis, intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic. In a plenary session on March 25, 1969, for instance, he reviewed Brazil’s Forest Policy and firmly expressed his concern about the fact that 300,000 square kilometers of the country’s forest were being destroyed annually. This was occurring not only in the North Region of the Amazon basin, where 78 percent of Brazilian forests were then located, as he pointed out. “In the case of the Brazilian pine, the araucária (Araucaria angustifolia), the outlook is truly catastrophic,” he warned, recalling that this native conifer, typical of Southern Brazil, “provides the finest timber in the world for the manufacture of cellulose for newsprint.” He went on to say, “we see that after ten years of irrational exploitation, from 1950 to 1960, around 24 percent of our existing araucaria reserves were cut down for use as timber.” Despite the fact that any deforestation in araucária forests was already prohibited by the Forestry Code (established only 4 years earlier), “destruction by fire, such as the recent massive accidental forest fire in Paraná, and the clearing of forests with fire in order to create agricultural lands, have significantly increased the estimated percentages of deforested areas,” he said. At the same time, he called for law enforcement by the responsible authorities as the only way to “conserve our natural resources for future generations.”

9But Burle Marx’s concerns were far from being limited to the forests. Much of his testimony focuses on cityscapes, urban centers, and public spaces. In “Landscape Complex” (1973), for instance, he demands urgent landmark status to protect the hills of Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf) and Morro da Urca, at the mouth of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro – a unique natural landscape complex threatened by development initiatives led by the privately owned company in charge of the whole site operation, including plans for “a restaurant with a conspicuous structure.” If Burle Marx’s fight was not sufficient to halt criminal deforestation, in this case, fortunately, he was successful. Pão de Açucar not only achieved national landmark status that same year, but was also later declared World Heritage Site by Unesco, in 2012.

10Nordenson certainly has a point, therefore, when she argues that Burle Marx’s “role as counselor was one of his greatest and most powerful acts as a landscape architect,” even if his positions may seem almost naïve sometimes. For example, “Sacrificed Landscape” (1968) was delivered just a month after the most infamous of all Institutional Acts issued by the military regime, the AI-5, legitimized press censorship, among other things. While vehemently protesting against a 35-meter high monumental sculpture to be installed in his own Flamengo Park—inaugurated only 3 years earlier and already preserved by sphan—Burle Marx boldly proposes that “all sessions of the Conselho Federal de Cultura should be open to journalists.”

11It is particularly disturbing, in any case, to think that this book was published the same year Brazil elected as President a far-right military officer who openly denies climate change and prioritizes economic interests over the protection of the Amazon. It might not be exaggerated, then, to see in Burle Marx’s remarks essential reading for anyone who is interested not only in landscape design, but also in the science and politics of living on Earth.

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Note de fin

1 See, for instance, Lauro Cavalcanti and Farès el-Dahdah (eds.), Roberto Burle Marx. A permanência do instável, 100 anos, Exhibition Catalogue (Rio de Janeiro, Paço Imperial, 12 December 2008-19 April 2009), Rio de Janeiro: Paço Imperial, 2009 and Lawrence Flemming and Su Rogers, Roberto Burle Marx: Landscape Architect, Botanist and Artist, Exhibition Catalogue (London, Royal College of Art ; Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens, March-April 1982), London: Royal College of Art ; Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1982.

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Ana Luiza Nobre, « Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, Depositions. Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship »ABE Journal [En ligne], 18 | 2021, mis en ligne le 30 juillet 2021, consulté le 25 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Ana Luiza Nobre

Professor, Departamento de Arquitetura e Urbanismo / PUC-Rio, Rio de Janeiro (Brasil)

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